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Soap opera shakes up customs of married life in the Middle East

Monday, July 28, 2008

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Every evening for the past four months, a tall young man with soulful blue eyes has been stealing hearts across the Middle East, from the refugee camps of the Gaza Strip to the gated mansions of Riyadh.

But it's not just the striking good looks of Mohannad, hero of the hugely popular Turkish TV soap "Noor," that appeal to female viewers. He's romantic, attentive to his wife, Noor, supportive of her independence and ambitions as a fashion designer -- in short, a rare gem for women in conservative, male-dominated surroundings.

"Noor" delivers an idealized portrayal of modern married life as equal partnership -- clashing with the norms of traditional Middle Eastern societies where elders often have the final word on whom a woman should marry and many are still confined to the role of wife and mother.

Some Muslim preachers in the West Bank and Saudi Arabia have taken notice, saying the show is un-Islamic and urging the faithful to change channels. But all the same, the show may be planting seeds of change.

"I told my husband, 'learn from [Mohannad] how he treats her, how he loves her, how he cares about her," said Heba Hamdan, 24, a housewife visiting the West Bank from Amman, Jordan. Married straight out of college, she said the show inspired her to go out and look for a job.

"Noor" seems particularly effective in changing attitudes because it offers new content in a familiar setting: Turkey is a Muslim country, inviting stronger viewer identification than Western TV imports. The characters in "Noor" observe the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, and Mohannad and Noor were married in a match arranged by his grandfather.

But it also upholds secular liberties: Protagonists have a drink with dinner and sex outside marriage. Mohannad, while faithful to Noor, had a child with a former girlfriend, and a cousin underwent an abortion.

The nightly soap opera "shows that there are Muslims who live differently," said Islah Jad, a professor of women's studies at the West Bank's Bir Zeit University.

The show's Turkish producer, Kemal Uzun, added: "We are a little more open, not as conservative as some of these countries, and I think this might have some appeal for the audience."

Even though some of the racier scenes are sanitized for Arab consumption, clerics have been sermonizing against "Noor." "This series collides with our Islamic religion, values and traditions," warned Hamed Bitawi, a lawmaker of the Islamic militant Hamas and preacher in the West Bank city of Nablus.

But the purists seem powerless to halt the "Noor" craze.

In Saudi Arabia, the only country with ratings, about three to four million people watch daily, out of a population of nearly 28 million, according to MBC, the Saudi-owned satellite channel that airs the show dubbed into Arabic for Middle East audiences.

In the West Bank and Gaza, streets are deserted during show time and socializing is timed around it. In Riyadh, the Saudi capital, and in Hebron, the West Bank's most conservative city, maternity wards report a rise in babies named Noor and Mohannad. A West Bank poster vendor has ditched Yasser Arafat and Saddam Hussein for Noor and Mohannad.

Jaro's Clothing Store in Gaza City is doing brisk business in copies of blouses seen on the show, including a sleeveless metallic number adapted to Gaza standards by being worn over a long-sleeved leotard.

Producer Uzun said the Istanbul villa on the Bosporus, fictional home of Mohannad's upper-class clan, has been rented by tour operators and turned into a temporary museum for Arab visitors.

A recent cartoon in the Saudi paper Al-Riyadh showed a plain-looking man marching into a plastic surgeon's office with a picture of Mohannad with his designer stubble. (Kivanc Tatlitug, who plays Mohannad, is an ex-basketball player who won the 2002 "Best Model of the World" award.)

In the West Bank city of Nablus, civil servant Mohammed Daraghmeh said he had MBC blocked at home so his children couldn't watch, but the family vowed to watch it at an uncle's house and he backed down.

In Hamas-ruled Gaza, keeping up with "Noor" is a challenge.

Power goes out frequently because of a yearlong blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt after the violent Hamas takeover. When a blackout disrupts viewing, many set their alarms to catch the pre-dawn repeat.

In the Shati refugee camp, several teenage girls huddled around an old TV set recently, trying to follow the action despite overflights by pilotless Israeli aircraft that can scramble reception.

Ala Hamami, 17, wearing a black robe and head scarf, said she looks up to Noor because she is independent.

"This series gives strength to women in the future," said Hamami, although she was set on a very traditional path -- she had just gotten engaged in an arranged match.

The cultural divide between modern Turkey and traditional Gaza became apparent in a scene where Mohannad and Noor, played by Songul Oden, both end up hospitalized. The girls giggled and Hamami quickly changed channels when Mohannad entered his wife's room and lay beside her to comfort her. The display of physical contact clearly made her uncomfortable.

Whether the "Noor" effect will be lasting is not known. The season finale falls Aug. 30, the day before Ramadan begins and religious fervor intensifies. Next up on MBC will be "Bab al-Hara," a Ramadan favorite that looks nostalgically at traditional Arab life.


Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey; Diaa Hadid in Jerusalem, Barbara Surk in Dubai and Donna Abu Nasr in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia contributed to this report.


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